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The saga begins with the wedding of Mukesh Ambani’s daughter, Isha Ambani Piramal. It then goes back to talk about the patriarch of the family and the founder of the empire, Dhirubhai Ambani. Ambani hails from the Indian state of Gujarat. Instead of working for others, Gujaratis mainly ply their own businesses. Many of the motels and hotels in America are owned by Gujaratis.
Dhirubhai's quest to become someone took him to Aden (now in Yemen) in the fifties. He worked first as a gas station attendant there, and then was promoted to a clerical job. He returned to India with Indian Rupees 50,000, an enormous sum in those days, in his pocket. That he could save so much money in the relatively petty jobs that he held in Aden is testament to his frugality. His older son, Mukesh, was born in Aden.
Upon his return to India, Dhirubhai started a business exporting spices. His family was now his wife, Kokilaben; two sons, Mukesh and Anil; and two daughters. All of them lived crammed in a two-room chawl (best described as a shared house, similar to the projects in Paris, only the Ambanis shared the single communal bathroom with a hundred other families) in Mumbai. Imagine that! And now the Ambanis, just 40 years later, live in the most expensive house in the world, the storied 27-storey Antilia, built in one of Mumbai's most posh neighbourhoods and staffed with 600 servants. I am sure their servants have more hygienic facilities than from where the Ambanis originated.
Dhirubhai died in 2002. When he died, he was worth over $6 billion. India had never seen a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story like his. From spices he expanded to polyester to petrochemicals and then to oil and gas. Dhirubhai certainly had the nous for entrepreneurship, but he also played the system and bent the rules furiously. He grew close to the country's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and finance minister (later president) Pranab Mukherjee. Dhirubhai famously said that his biggest customer was no one else but the Indian government.
He married his older son, Mukesh, to Nita, and the younger son, Anil, to Tina. As is customary in an orthodox Gujarati family as his, both the brides were Gujarati. Nita he saw at a dance appearance where the petite danseuse was performing Indian classical dance. He was taken in by her looks—fair and pretty—fairness of course almost being a sine qua non for prettiness in India. He invited her home to meet his son, Mukesh.
Mukesh of course had no choice in the matter. If his father approved of a girl, he just had to go along for the ride. So he took Nita on a ride in the family's old Fiat car on a road adjacent to Mumbai's seafront. Those were the days of socialism in India; even if you were rich, you did not show it. How this would change twenty-five years later! The Fiat stalled midway, and the suitor and the suited had to hail a taxi, another Fiat, back home.
Anil's case was different. Nita came from a conservative middle-class Gujarati family and therefore automatically fit into the Ambani household. Anil had no shortage of eligible brides willing to betroth him, but his heart was set on the film actress, Tina Munim. Tina was a rebel even by the standards of an Indian woman of today. After relationships with other actors that she never concealed, she went on to live with a still-married much older superstar of yore, Rajesh Khanna. Anil was not fazed by Tina's past, but Dhirubhai was.
After Anil refused to marry anyone else for years, Dhirubhai finally relented. In an Indian joint family (where the parents and the siblings live in one house), after the sons' marriage, the mother-in-law traditionally cedes control to the elder-most daughter-in-law. Dhirubhai's wife, Kokilaben, therefore did the same with Nita. Tina felt suppressed and never really felt part of the family. How could she, with Nita being such a control freak, as she was to prove later. But it was still strange that two Gujarati sisters-in-law living in the same household would not get along, especially since the two brothers, Mukesh and Anil, were so chummy with each other.
Nobody knew the goings-on in the Ambani household while Dhirubhai was still alive. All of the friction was stowed away from public eye. But the moment Dhirubhai died in 2002, and he died without a Will, tensions within the family spilled over. The brothers fought, the mother brokered a truce and split the empire. Nita decided that she wanted to move out of the old family home. Mukesh gave an interview to the New York Times in which he criticized Anil. Anil promptly slapped a defamation suit against his brother.
The Ambanis then accounted for about 3 percent of India's overall GDP, and the Indian government was desperate that their empire not flounder. Mukesh took over the main petrochemical business and left everything else for Anil. At the time of parting, both brothers were worth over $30 billion each and were among the richest people in the world. Mukesh today is worth close to $50 billion but Anil just less than a billion.
Mukesh and Tina had three children, Akash, Isha, and Anant. During Dhirubhai's time, Nita was not allowed to preen herself, but now she has taken on a very visible role in Mukesh's empire and in many aspects of Indian life. Funny that she came from a conservative family and has blossomed so much, but Tina, the former actress, has receded into the background, cutting off all her old ties to Bollywood in the process.
Not Nita though. She adores eye candy. She's India's queen socialite. Attractive actors and cricket stars vie to be in her presence. You are a nobody in Mumbai if you haven't been invited to one of Nita's dos. The cricket superstar, Sachin Tendulkar, is a constant presence. The king of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, is at her beck and call. Nita holds debutante balls for the daughters of the rich and famous. If you happen to be invited to one of these balls, you could get your break in Bollywood. The attractive woman, Sara Ali Khan, daughter of another Bollywood star, Saif Ali Khan, gained prominence in one of these balls and is now an established film star. Nita mints stars!
The high society virus has infected Nita's kids. Her daughter, Isha, attended Yale and Stanford, and then took part in Le Bal des Debutantes in Paris in 2017. Most Indian people would never have heard of the event. But that's just the thing with India. The Indian glitterati, perhaps the top 0.001% of the country's 1.3 billion population, comprises of cricket stars and actors and billionaires and powerful politicians, and lives in a world virtually of its own. Next in line is the English-speaking chatterati, which is perhaps about 10% of the population. The chatterati is supremely aspirational, constantly vying to enter the world of the glitterati, but the doors are firmly shut. Only maybe one in 5 million people can squeak through.
That's what makes the lives of the glitterati so appealing and so coveted. Lives that are above the pale and completely above the law.
Isha got married in a wedding ceremony that was ostentatious even by the most ostentatious Indian standards. Mukesh reportedly spent $100 million on her nuptials, which spread across from sexy Italy to exotic Rajasthan in India over a time span of about six months. Beyonce was in attendance, in a figure hugging dress with her breasts practically falling out. My, how the male hearts in attendance must have throbbed! Hillary Clinton too was seen prancing around with Shah Rukh Khan. John Kerry was also there doing his impersonation of how stiff old white men can't dance. But in India, they know no better. They thought Kerry was the very personification of Michael Jackson!
Akash's wedding was a more subdued affair but also started in Switzerland, slowly snaking its way to India. Akash has attended Brown. The one thing that stood out in his wedding was when he, upon the urging of his friends, tried to plant a kiss on his new bride. In doing so, he was surely inspired by the famous picture of the American sailor in New York's Times Square in 1945 who spontaneously bent a woman over and planted a gob-smacking French kiss on her. In Akash's case, he bent his wife over too much and then could barely get an awkward lip lock in. There of course was no tonguing on show, even though tonguing is on free show in Bollywood now after a gap of 70 years.
Mukesh's estranged younger brother, Anil, almost went to jail recently but Mukesh bailed him out at the last minute. Still, the families have never really reconciled, although Anil and Tina were seen at the weddings. You never ever see Nita and Tina together though. Some cat fight it has been!
The India of today prides itself in the exhibitionism of ostentatious consumption. The Ambanis are prime examples. Prime Ministers and presidents tell people to stop this vulgar display in a country where 600 million earn less than $2 a day, but then they themselves are eager to partake of the splendor and the glitz. What message does that send out to India and to the world? That India has broken into three, one part for the richie rich and the second one for the aspiring classes. The third part, the dismally and desperately poor, of course have little to aspire to. The first two parts, especially the first one, treat their third part as a natural resource that is available, for a pittance, as cannon fodder, in endless quantity, to be done with as their masters please.
Natural resources of course are exploited in other ways as well. America was built by robber barons who looted the country's natural resources to amass handsome fortunes. Before 1991, India had zero dollar billionaires. Now it has 131, just behind China and the US. America's robber barons gained the sheen of respectability by giving. India's robber barons though, while have exploited the country's resources in the same way as their American compatriots, are shy of emulating them in giving.